Entrepreneur: Locating need for specific service leads to line-locating startup

2013-07-21T00:15:00Z Entrepreneur: Locating need for specific service leads to line-locating startup The Billings Gazette
July 21, 2013 12:15 am

For a lot of years, Wendy Warren worked for a service that sometimes had to give clients bad news.

The service located buried utility lines for people anticipating a construction project that may require some digging. Cutting through a line can be costly, and dangerous.

But, for liability and other reasons, Warren’s service only located public utilities. A homeowner trying to find an old underground power line running to a shed, for example, was out of luck.

“I began asking just about anyone who would listen, contactors, homeowners and friends: Would they use the services of a private locator if one were available?” Warren said. “The answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ So, here I am.”

Warren runs Last Call Locating, a company that specializes in finding private underground utilities. She may be reached at 698-9850. Here’s what else she had to say about starting her own business:

Nature of the business:

What makes my business unique is that I go one step beyond Montana’s “call before you dig” system. I only locate private lines that a business or homeowner is responsible for.

For homeowners, this can be an electric line to a lamp post or well, a gas line running to a Jacuzzi or pool, or a phone line out to a shop or detached garage. For contractors, this can be commercial signage, parking lot lights or customer-owned communication lines.

Contractors, homeowners and institutions can be left with numerous unmarked utilities. A great example is MetraPark. Most utilities on the compound are owned by the park itself, not by the utility companies. This makes it their responsibility to find a way to get them marked. Schools, hospitals and shopping plazas all face the same challenge.

Why start this business?

I like the challenge of locating utilities and have been doing so for 20-plus years. It’s rewarding when I help solve an issue someone has on their property or job site. Over the years, working for general locating companies, I have repeatedly been asked to locate private lines while onsite. I felt bad I could not do so due to contractual obligations and liability issues.

After being asked enough times, I decided to put out some feelers to see if the need was great enough to warrant a business being formed, a business that would strictly cater to the private side of a locate.

I began asking just about anyone who would listen; contactors, homeowners and friends. Would they use the services of a private locator if one were available? The answer was a resounding “YES.” So here I am.

Where did startup funding come from?

Most funding came from my personal savings and a little help from my family. The beauty of my business is having low overhead. I have no need for a retail office as people merely pick up the phone when they need me. The biggest cost was purchasing my locate equipment and liability insurance. Not having a lot of startup debt made the launch much easier and a lot less stressful.

How long have you been in business?

Last Call Locating is in its third year. So far, every year gets a little busier. I hope to keep growing as the word gets out more and the need becomes more evident. The service I provide can certainly saves time, money and injury.

I recently had a contractor ask me to check a basketball court inside a school before they tore the floor out. What could be running under a basketball court, right? I found a main power line running directly across the middle of it. Their diligence prevented utility damage, but more importantly, they may have saved a worker from serious injury or death.

Your biggest challenge during the current recession?

The biggest challenge is trying to promote my business to the greater Billings area. Advertising can be pretty pricey and I have to ease into that market as finances allow.

The other challenge is dealing with the slow periods. Construction and home improvement projects tend to mirror the health of our economy.

What was done to overcome those challenges?

I saved quite a bit of money by building my own Web page and shopping around for business cards and other promotional material. I am testing different advertising markets to find what’s best before I make a large investment.

My locating fees are the same today as they were three years ago. Times are tough and I want my prices to be affordable. I think that once folks realize that it’s a lot more expensive to fix a utility than to call me, things will continue to improve.

What is being done to expand the business?

Much of my expansion is coming from word of mouth. Contractors and homeowners are passing along my information to others. I expect that’s the best kind of advertising a business could hope for. Still, I continue to work on improving my search engine ratings and online searchability.

I intend to expand the word out to our ranchers and rural communities. These properties have myriad private utilities, including electric lines running to wells, pivots and other buildings.

I am also diversifying to more than just locating. I also offer electrical fault finding. What this means is when someone has a power line go bad, I can find the bad spot in that line. That way they can fix that one spot instead of replacing the entire line. That’s a huge deal when someone has a beautifully landscaped yard they don’t want torn up.

Your best business decisions?

Using the Small Business Development Center here in Billings proved to be a great start. They gave me all kinds of helpful information to get my business started. They also confirmed that one of the most important things a business should have is to find a strong attorney and a great accountant.

Your worst business mistake?

Not clarifying well enough through advertising that I am not Montana One Call (811). Calling 811 generates public utility locaters such as Northwestern Energy and MDU.

It’s also difficult to explain that private property does not necessarily mean private utilities. Utilities are generally considered private after the meter. If your power meter is in the alley behind your house, then the line from that meter to your home is indeed private and you are responsible for it.

What advice do you have for someone running a business?

Don’t get too big too fast. The quality of work and customer service should always be the driving force for any business.

Number of workers?

Due to the potential hazards involved, I prefer doing the jobs myself right now. There is great liability when dealing with power and gas lines. Perhaps as the business grows I will team up with an experienced locator.

What’s your five-year plan for the business?

I would like Last Call Locating to be well-recognized in our community. I want to continue protecting people and infrastructure by educating and promoting private locating. Repair bills and injuries can be prevented. I want to be part of that process.

A question you would ask other entrepreneurs?

What have you found to be the best way to market your company?

If you weren’t doing what you are now, what would be your dream job?

Freelance writing for a newspaper or magazine. Maybe writing a book on starting a business.

“Entrepreneurs” appears regularly in the Sunday Business section. The feature will help readers become familiar with new businesses, as well as educate others in the challenges of starting a business. If you would like to tell your story, please contact: Chris Jorgensen, The Billings Gazette, 401 N. Broadway, Billings, MT 59101. Office phone: 657-1311. Fax: 657-1208. Email: cjorgensen@billingsgazette.com.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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